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Lindsay A. Gerken
Staff Writer

Willits Localization Conference

© Copyright 2006, From The Wilderness Publications, All Rights Reserved. This story may NOT be posted on any Internet web site without express written permission. Contact May be circulated, distributed or transmitted for non-profit purposes only.

April 19, 2006 1300 PST (FTW) - WILLITS - Driving through dripping redwoods on a misty, rainy day reminded me why I came to the Regional Localization Networking Conference in Willits, California on the weekend of April 7th through 9th. The redwoods have adapted to their local environment, resisting rot and decay that threatens other non-native plants, so that the hundreds of inches of rain and flooding that occur along the Northern California coast is a blessing to the redwood instead of a curse. If loggers come along and cut down the vertical grandeur of a redwood, the redwood fights back by budding another sapling straight from its stump. Learning about what conference attendees called “biomimickry,” I recalled the redwood tree, with its mighty presence, fruitful existence, and custom adaptations to its surroundings. Standing in Willits with my entire body collapsed alongside a redwood that supported my weight with undeniable solidarity and the smell of wet bark, I realized that if the purpose of this conference was to learn how to localize our efforts; whether with currency, agriculture, or local business practices; then it was fitting that all attendees consistently had a forest full of reliable redwoods to act as teachers.

Over one hundred people met and networked with each other from various parts of the Pacific Northwest region, from as north as Vancouver, British Columbia to as south as Monterey Bay, near San Francisco. Considering that the goal of the conference was to establish networking relationships between attendees, the conference was a raving success. At the same time though, I would have liked to have heard more from the highly informational, spectacular speakers (some of whom weren’t even originally on the conference schedule) such as Steve Heckeroth, Annette Riggs, and Julian Darley of the Post Carbon Institute, and less of the theoretical visualizations of speakers such as the governmental representative from the Environmental Protection Agency.

On Friday night, Lanny Cotler, facilitator of the conference’s sponsoring organization, Willits Economic LocaLization (WELL), introduced keynote speaker, David Schaller of the EPA. Before inviting Schaller to speak, Lanny asked the audience many hard questions about the future of natural resources, American society, and the human race. Calling those in the audience “bioneers,” Lanny asserted the conference’s underlying main idea: Peak Oil and the post-carbon era are upon us, and it’s time to expand the movement to localize resources. Lanny rightly reminded the audience that the government and “technocracy” are not going to save us—we are the ones we’ve all been waiting for and the time to move is now. Emphasizing that the people rule and not the US markets, Lanny then asked Schaller to give the audience back some of its lost faith in the government.

Schaller’s long power-point presentation called “Staring Down Scarcity” vaguely skirted around the intangible topic of viewing the natural world through lenses of either “scarcity or abundance.” Sorting through the mire of Schaller’s dimly-presented materials, I found some kernels of practical, tangible products and examples that FTW readers can use:

Citing companies with sustainable economic practices, Schaller mentioned a company from Great Britain that is using their local sheep’s wool to create Thermafleece, a natural and highly-effective building insulation that makes the risks of asbestos obsolete. Also mentioned were current innovations such as spray-on soy sealant for building projects, degradable bioplastic ware for sustainable picnicking, and Oliod engines for environmentally-safe water treatment.

Of particular interest to the beer-drinkers in the audience was the example of the New Belgium Brewing Company (known for their Fat Tire Amber Ale), which has created a way of operating that they call “Beer and Beyond.” The brewing company drastically reduced the amount of wastes it produces by powering their facilities with wind, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, building sustainably, recapturing and reusing waste water, and recycling waste products—such as using spent beer grain to feed cattle that in turn create manure that fertilizes soil to grow more grain. As the New Belgium Brewing Company found out, sustainable business practices not only benefit the Earth, but they also increase the company’s profit margin. Simply by recapturing and reusing waste water, the brewing company uses only about four barrels of water to produce one barrel of beer, as opposed to the industry standard of using eight. In this way, the New Belgium Brewing Company spends about half as much money on water as do other breweries of comparable size.

Saturday’s activities included several group break-out sessions wherein specific subjects were discussed and ideas were shot around the room like ricocheting brain bullets. Five total groups, placed together by region, first shared their “best practices” for economic localization. The group that this writer participated in encompassed people from Nevada County, Siskiyou County, Napa County, and Sonoma County. Some of the ideas expressed between representatives of these counties included: making asset maps of communities, including where waterways and gardens are located; conducting energy audits to determine the changes that can be made in specific areas to reduce energy usage; creating monthly community discussions on energy issues that are free to the public; holding events such as the “Come Home to Eat Event,” sponsored by A.P.P.L.E. (Alliance for a Post-Petroleum Local Economy) to create a local food network; organizing “emergency preparedness” groups in order to introduce issues like Peak Oil and the need to localize resources; creating a member-owned energy co-op where shares are owned by community members; and of course, independent media such as From The Wilderness articles, the “Peak Moment” TV show by Yuba Gals Independent Media, or presentations to university students such as Deborah Lindsay’s upcoming CSU, Monterey Bay lecture appropriately titled, "Peak Oil, Sex, and Why Gas Prices are going to Increase." From going around the group and hearing these and many other ideas expressed, it was obvious and encouraging to me that those in attendance at the WELL conference already have the localization ball rolling in their communities.

Willits Localization Conference

After lunch, another breakout session called “Global Café” ensued, with the goal of exploring creative ways to promote economic localization in our communities and regions. These groups were asked to shoot ideas out of their mouths like mushroom spores and to not judge or evaluate the ideas, but to list them quickly, whether they were practical or asinine. Groups changed members several times and yet the ideas continued to flow. Some of the more practical notions expressed included: mass transportation, seed swapping, alternative currencies, labeling local and non-local products, providing local food for school lunches, using local banks, organizing carpools, and using local media and advertisements. A few of the more innovative suggestions included: cooperative canning, placing an import tax on out-of-town foods and products, solarized schools, rainwater catchment systems, community home building, “shop local first” campaigns, community “buy back” centers for not only recyclables but items like appliances and equipment, and my personal favorite as an alternative to turf-gangs—“garden gangs” of young people who gather to grow food and hang-out in their local community garden instead of at the mall. These ideas were then synthesized by the groups into a long list that will soon be compiled and available at the WELL website. Though grouping attendees by region allowed networking to occur between local neighbors, I would have also liked to have seen attendees grouped by topic, so that the experts of each particular skill set could have also had a chance to brainstorm.

Following the “Global Café,” Brian Weller of WELL conducted a session in the main conference room that illustrated the idea of “biomimikry.” Using the way geese fly as an analogy, Brian told the audience how geese fly in a “V” shape in order to use the wind currents of each bird to their advantage. The lead goose must face the most wind resistance, and resistance is reduced further and further down the line of birds. When the lead bird gets tired, the geese switch places and uphold the “V” shape. If one bird drops away from the group from sickness or exhaustion, at least two other geese accompany the flailing goose to the ground, and stay with the ailing goose until death or re-departure, when they join up with another group of geese. Brian explained how this example is an analogy that can be applied to businesses and group work in general. Acting as a team, especially when one member is hurt or ill, allows the whole group to continue on their path. By taking-turns doing hard tasks, no one person gets “burned out” when completing the most difficult jobs. Like geese who honk loudly from behind to encourage the flock, positive feedback within organizations of people always adds more energy and efficiency to the group. Conference attendees were asked to consider other such examples of biomimickry, such as the way mushroom mycelia make underground networks that work symbiotically with soil and plants, or the way spiders stay in one area and collect local food resources.

Two of the most informative and intriguing guest speakers, Steve Heckeroth and Annette Riggs, spoke for about ten minutes to a crowd of eager listeners in the main conference hall. By the end of his power-point presentation on solar energy called “Listening to the Earth,” I was referring to Heckeroth as “Solar Steve.” Having been an activist since the seventies and having built solar and electric cars for decades, Steve had a very nonchalant and soothing way of showing that oil resources are depleting quickly while the sun shines everyday. Whereas Steve is keenly in-tune with the advantages and disadvantages of solar and electric transportation and power, he also has practical experience making not-so-perfect alternative technologies work like a charm. When Steve showed the audience some of the cars he’s built, including an all-solar VW van (that took three days to charge) and an electric Porsche Spyder, they were awed by the decades of automobile innovations that Steve has worked on and built personally. Besides automobile innovations, Steve also shared incredibly intelligent ideas about how to build homes in order to use sunshine in the most effective way; such as building all roofs in a community as south-facing, solarized panels; or building communities with greenbelts through them to give an advantage to non-motorized bike riders. Steve writes absorbing articles on his work, and is hired often by various businesses to help them with their projects and practices.

Annette Riggs of the non-profit organization Current Innovations gave a speedy speech on complementary currencies and how they benefit local economies. Surprised at how much information Annette skillfully shoved into a five-minute period, I was impressed by both her uplifting attitude on localized currencies and the plethora of information she shared with the conference. Having worked extensively in the field of barter and exchange systems between large companies, Annette has first-hand experience with alternative currencies. Complementary currencies can be as simple as frequent flyer miles, or as complex as the 8 billion dollars of IRS-reported business-to business trade exchanges that occur in the US every year. Annette discussed how imperative it is to get local businesses involved first in any complementary currency program, so that a diverse directory of business “from A to Z” is accessible to community members who will still have a wide availability of goods and services to choose from. Explaining the ins and outs of complementary currency systems to the questioning audience, Annette fielded audience inquiries with intelligent responses from her highly economically-aware perspective. Considering that most conference discussions on localization ended up in the monetary realm, I would have appreciated the chance to hear much more from Annette on how complementary currencies promote sustainable local practices on a business basis.

Saturday evening was highlighted with a theatrical performance by the Willits Pickup Company called “Worm-Words.” A writhing group of worm-clad actors slithered in an ever-changing heap on the conference room stage, explaining their complex relationship with the soil and the farmer. Encouraging audience members to compost, the human-sized earthworms danced and sang “We are the worms, we make food!” as they passed flyers out to the audience. The bar of the Brooktrails Lodge was a popular place for conference attendees to indulge in local beer from the Ukiah Brewing Company or local wine from Frey Vineyards. An ueber-talented pianist played song after song for those in the bar who wished to make requests and sing along. At one point, the entire bar sang in chorus the song “Ol’ Man River” from the musical Showboat as we drank spirits alongside Willits Creek. Those who did not adjourn to bed found heated spas to soak in that were surrounded by redwoods and Mendocino mists.

The main portion of Sunday’s final activities included a presentation from the Post-Carbon Institute, given by director Julian Darley and executive director Celine Rich. Founded on the goal of assisting societies through world energy depletion and helping them to localize, the Post-Carbon Institute maps over 85 localization efforts nationwide, and handfuls of international efforts. The newest expansion of their services includes the ability to create an organization’s own website using post-carbon’s templates. The ability to easily customize a website for any localization effort by going to the Post-Carbon Institute’s site has the advantage of creating a one-stop network of hundreds of localization groups. Julian Darley’s vivacious presentation of his organization was well received by conference members and had the purpose of answering the question: Where do we go from here and how do we stay in contact with so many groups? Though I would have much rather had the Post-Carbon Institute’s presentation take place earlier in the conference schedule (because by Sunday afternoon everyone was tired and ready to leave), their appearance tied the loose strings of the conference together by stating the one place where every conference attendee could find further information, networking, and resources.

The conference’s sponsoring organization, WELL, started by Dr. Jason Bradford of Willits, ended the conference with a long talk on innovation given by Brain Weller. Explaining the differences in thinking between innovators and traditionalists, Weller emphasized a key point to those of us in the audience interested in media and the presentation of localization efforts. Noting that it takes all types of people in a community to achieve progress, Weller asked the mostly-innovator audience to “be friends with your local traditionalists,” and to craft our messages with the audience of both traditionalists and activists in mind. I don’t believe there was a more important concept for localization progress than this key idea. If localization efforts are only heard about or accepted by those already participating in them, then new people and perspectives cannot enter the movement. When speaking to others about localization, let us remember that it takes all kinds of “movers and shakers” to accomplish large-scale goals, and leaving major decision-makers out of the process simply because they have different viewpoints will accomplish nothing. In other words, we cannot preach to the choir if it is the congregation we wish to reach. The congregation of this world is made up of such a mosaic of people that if our efforts are to be fruitful, we must craft our messages with all the people in our local area in mind, including those who have never heard of economic localization before or those who want to resist it. Once our messages are crafted to be more inclusive, new people from various corners of our communities will begin to listen and comprehend why localizing resources is essential to the future prosperity of every community.

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